Emil Kaufmann

"Giambattista Piranesi" in Architecture in the Age of Reason

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Now let us turn to two publications of 1761 and 1765. I will begin with the latter, the Parere sull' architettura. This was composed as a dialogue between Protopiro and Didascalo, or, as we may call them by simply translating their names, the Novice and the Master. The Master represents tradition; he is a fictional friend of Piranesi, so to say, his voice. In the end he gets the better of the Novice, who represents a type already familiar to us, the rigorist. The dialogue not only helps us to understand Piranesi, but it also reflects the situation at Venice already known to us from Algarotti's and Memmo's comments. We learn from the Parere that the adherents of Lodoli must have been quite articulate in the Adriatic republic about 1760. In the city in which Italian Rococo painting had just reached its height, in the atmosphere of somewhat effeminate Venetian splendor, the stern doctrine of functionalism rose to significance for the first time. An analogous situation developed in France when revolutionary austerity succeeded the frivolity around Marie Antoinette. Such were the contrasts the eighteenth century brought with it--contrasts which could not end but in grave conflict.

Opinions on Architecture: A Dialogue
Protopiro. So, Didascalo! You have plenty of experience in architecture; and yet, having learned to know good from bad, instead of making good use of your knowledge, you too are asking to be thought of as one of those who the more expert they think themselves, the less they really know?
Didascalo. Why, Protopiro?
Protopiro. Why, just look at these drawings that you try to defend! You remind me of Montesquieu's axiom: A building laden with ornament is an enigma to the eyes, as a confused poem is an enigma to the mind.† I said as much to Piranesi himself, when he showed the drawings to me as an example of something good that he has produced.
Didascalo. Good heavens! You don't mince your words.
Protopiro. Well, I love truth.
Didascalo. So do I; and because I love it more than you do, because I know it better than you do, I will tell you that Montesquieu knew more about poetry than he did about architecture. He understood that a poet has many ways of making his name without having to confuse his readers; but he did not know how little can be done with architecture (in terms of ornament) as soon as architects are forbidden to dress it up with anything not pertaining to architecture itself. Besides, a confused poem achieves nothing but mental con­ fusion, whereas a building laden with ornament is a thing that has been popu­ lar for centuries and is now more so than ever. Believe me, buildings are made to please the public, not the critics. How can Montesquieu compare a work that is confused so that everyone rejects it, with a work rich in ornament that over the years has given and still gives delight to the greater part of humanity? My dear friend, be more circumspect in adopting some of these new proverbs; weigh them carefully, and you will find that nothing is good about them but the shell. Follow this old one: L'uso fa legget [(Use makes law)].
Protopiro. Use may make law, but abuse does not. Tell me what right­ minded architect or admirer of architecture has ever failed to condemn those irrelevant attributes that you could define no better than as anything not per­ taining to architecture itself?
Didascalo. You force me to say something I did not want to say. You do not know what you're saying; and I will show you why. Tell me, on what grounds do you use the word "abuse" to describe the current practice of architecture?
Protopiro. Ask your friend Piranesi. He is the author of all those invec­ tives, which can be read in his book Della magnificenza ed architettura de' romani, against the craze for constructing and decorating buildings with such things as are not supplied by truth, that is to say, by the nature of architecture.
Didascalo. Answer my question, and you will see that Piranesi is not so inconsistent as you make him out to be. On what grounds, I repeat, do you use the word "abuse" to describe the current practice of architecture?
Protopiro. You are trying to make me say what you already know as well as I do. Proving that current practice does not pertain to architecture at all, that it constitutes abuse, would require us to discuss the nature of architec­ ture - and that would go on forever. Has not Piranesi already told us more than enough in his book? However, rather than have you claim that you reduced me to silence, I will answer Piranesi with some of the conclusions that he himself has drawn from his lengthy examination of the origins of architecture.
Didascalo. Please go on.
Protopiro. I may not remember it all; but I shall not be too far from the mark. In the first place, since the walls of a building are erected, if for nothing else, to give shelter at the sides and to support the roof, I would like to know, Why do they carry so much decoration-tympana, rustications (as they are called), modillions, cornices, and all the other appendages? What is the point of the festoons, fillets, masks, paterae, heads of stags and oxen, and all the other clutter to be found around doors, windows, arches, and other openings in the walls? And the festoons, the labyrinth frets, the arabesques, the hip­ pogriffs, the sphinxes-why not send them all back to the realms of poetry? Why not send the dolphins back to the sea and the lions and other wild beasts to Libya? The oval, triangular, and octagonal columns-why not make them round again? Why not straighten out those that are twisted or distorted or bent? The former certainly fail to reproduce the roundness of the tree trunks that were their origin, and the latter reveal a structural weakness of the build­ ings. Let the triglyphs show that they derive from a well-set beam, and the modillions from a regular arrangement of joists in the roof of a building. Let the dentils be put in their place ...
Didascalo. All these should be removed from the pediments of buildings, where they bear no relation to joists or rafters. On a facade, none of these things has any business on the cornice beneath the pediment, and they should be omitted.
Protopiro. Yes, sir. Let the broken pediments be put together again, and let us cease to pretend that a roof can be split along its length ...
Didascalo. Making it rain indoors.
Protopiro. Take down all the episkeniat ...
Didascalo. So they do not crush the roof, and no one will say that one house has been built on top of another. And volutes and foliage must be ordered to stay on the capitals, where they belong.
Protopiro. That's right. Architects must recover from the obsession thathas led them into all this and many other extravagances; then everything will go as it ought to go.
Didascalo. Do you have anything else to say?
Protopiro. I could go on for a hundred years. But if only the things I have mentioned were done, that would be a start: architecture would begin to revive.
Didascalo. What do you mean?
Protopiro. To revert to what it was in the days of its greatest glory.
Didascalo. By which you mean that the Greeks raised it to perfection--isn't that true? And that anyone who fails to do as you say demonstrates his ignorance? And so Piranesi, who has not done so, but who, in these designs of his, has taken the crazy liberty of following his own caprice ...
Protopiro. Without good reason ...
Didascalo. Yes, without good reason, like most present-day architects-is he too showing his ignorance?
Protopiro. Certainly!
Didascalo. With these maxims in mind, my dear Protopiro, you would have us all grazing herds!
Protopiro. I don't follow you.
Didascalo. You would have us live in huts such as those some say the Greeks took as the source for their architectural ornament.4
Protopiro. Didascalo, let us not descend into sophistry.
Didascalo. You are the sophist, you who impose on architecture rules that it has never possessed. What will you say, if I prove to you that austerity, reason, and imitation of huts are all incompatible with architecture? That architecture, far from requiring decorative features derived from the parts necessary for constructing and holding up a building, consists of ornaments that are all extraneous?

Protopiro. That is quite a tall order!
Didascalo. But, before we come to my proofs, tell me this: Where would you expect to find austerity, reason, and imitation? I imagine that it would be in the styles bequeathed to us by Vitruvius and implemented by [Andrea] Palladio, and by those other architects who were the first to revive this kind of architecture. Or perhaps in the styles lately imported from Greece and pre­ sented to us with more pomp than they initially seemed to warrant.
Protopiro. From both those sources, but without those errors and liberties that even the architects who revived them saw fit to add.
Didascalo. Make whatever stipulations you like. The more stipulations there are, the more you will shorten my way to a conclusive proof; the fewer there are, the more concessions you make to those architects who work with­ out consenting to be held back by any such rules.
Protopiro. I have given you my opinion.
Didascalo. So it is Greece and Vitruvius? Very well: tell me, then, what do columns represent? Vitruvius says they are the forked uprights of huts;† others describe them as tree trunks placed to support the roof. And the flutes on the columns: what do they signify? Vitruvius thinks they are the pleats in a matron's gown.† So the columns stand neither for forked uprights nor for tree trunks but for women placed to support a roof. Now what do you think about flutes? It seems to me that columns ought to be smooth. Therefore, take note: smooth columns. The forked uprights and tree trunks should be planted in the earth, to keep them stable and straight. Indeed that is how the Dorians thought of their columns. Therefore they should have no bases. Take note: no bases. The tree trunks, if they were used to support the roof, would be smooth and flat on top; the forked props can look like anything you like, except capi­ tals. If that is not definite enough, remember that the capitals must represent solid things, not heads of men, maidens, or matrons, or baskets with foliage around them, or baskets topped with a matron's wig. So take note: no capitals. Never fear; there are other rigorists who also call for smooth columns, no bases, and no capitals.
As for architraves, you want them to look either like tree trunks placed horizontally across the forked props or like beams laid out to span the tree trunks. So what is the point of the fasciae or of the band that projects from the surface? To catch the water and go rotten? Take note: architraves with no fasciae and no band.
What do the triglyphs stand for? Vitruvius says that they represent the ends of the joists of ceilings or soffits.† When they are placed at the corners of the building, however, not only do they belie this description but they can never be placed at regular intervals, because they have to be centered over the columns. If they are moved away from the corners, they can then be placed symmetrically only if the building is narrowed or widened with respect to the triglyphs. It is madness that a few small cuts on stone or mortar should dictate the proportions of a building, or that all or some of the due requirements of the building should be sacrificed to them. Thus, the ancient architects cited by Vitruvius5 held that temples ought not to be built in the Doric manner;† better still, the Romans used the Doric without the added clutter. So take note: friezes without triglyphs. Now it is your turn, Signor Protopiro, to purge architecture of all the other ornaments that you disparaged just now.
Protopiro. What? Have you finished?
Didascalo. Finished? I have not even started. Let us go inside a temple, a palace, wherever you choose. Around the walls we shall observe architraves, friezes, and cornices adorned with those features that you just described as standing for the roof of a building--triglyphs, modillions, and dentils. And when those features are absent, and the friezes and cornices are smooth, even then the architraves and friezes will seem to support a roof and the cornices seem to be the eaves. These eaves, however, will drip rain inside the temple, the palace, or basilica. So the temple, the palace, or the basilica will be out­ side, and the outside inside, will they not? To rectify such anomalies, such travesties of architecture, take note: internal walls of buildings with no architraves, friezes, and cornices.
And then, on these cornices, which stand for eaves, vaults are erected. This is an even worse impropriety than those episkenia on the roofs that we dis­ cussed a little while ago and that Vitruvius condemns.†
Therefore take note: buildings with no vaults.
Let us observe the walls of a building from inside and outside. These walls terminate in architraves and all that goes with them above; below these archi­ traves, most often we find engaged columns or pilasters. I ask you, what holds up the roof of the building? If the wall, then it needs no architraves; if the columns or pilasters, what is the wall there for? Choose, Signor Protopiro, Which will you demolish? The walls or the pilasters? No answer? Then I will demolish the whole lot. Take note: buildings with no walls, no columns, no pilasters, no friezes, no cornices, no vaults, no roofs. A clean sweep.
You will say that I am imagining buildings in my own fashion. But just imagine one in your fashion. Show me designs by any of the rigorists, anyone who thinks he has conceived a wonderful design for a building; and I warrant he will look more foolish than the man who works to please himself-yes, more foolish-because the only way he could imagine a building without irregularities is when four upright poles with a roof-the very prototype of architecture--can remain entire and unified at the very moment of being halved, varied, and rearranged in a thousand ways; in short, when the simple becomes composite, and one becomes as many as you like.
Now, to return to what I was saying, isn't it true that you and your friends are making architecture subject to laws that have never really existed? Didn't I tell you that if you were to build according to the principles you have got into your heads--that is, to make everything in conformity with reason and truth--you would have us all go back to living in huts? The Scythians, the Goths, and other barbarous peoples, who all lived in those rational buildings of yours, made war upon those who lived in buildings that were designed more freely­ or, as you would say, capriciously--in order to get themselves into those buildings. You can rest assured that no nation will ever go to war in order to occupy rational buildings.
This is the place to answer the objection you recently raised against Piranesi, that in his book Della magnificenza ed architettura de' romani, he denounced those whose work is marked by caprice. A rigorist had reproached the Romans for having corrupted Greek architecture; and Piranesi was obliged to show him that, on the contrary, the Romans, having adopted an architecture that was found to be infected to the core, and finding themselves consequently unable to cure its ills, attempted instead to mitigate them. Now, compare the spirit of that book with what I have just told you, and then judge whether Piranesi has changed his opinion. But what is this? Signor Protopiro, are you lost for words?
Protopiro. I am letting you have your say.

Didascalo. I can see that to you my criticisms seem unduly harsh. But, though I may have laid waste the rigorists' buildings with fire and sword, I did so with the same logic that they would use to lay waste the finest cities in the universe.
Protopiro. Have you finished? May I speak?
Didascalo. By all means.
Protopiro. Est modus in rebus [(There is moderation in all things)], says Horace;† all extremes are dangerous, as the saying goes. If you can bear this in mind in your arguments, then we will continue for a while. If not, goodbye.
Didascalo. You would like me to agree with you that the architectural manners laid down by Vitruvius are rational? That they imitate truth?
Protopiro. Rational--highly rational--by comparison with the unbridled license that prevails in construction today.
Didascalo. Aha! Rational by comparison with current practice? And so, if we leave current practice out of it, your rationality disappears at once. The critics, who never let up, will still want the last word; deprive them of the wide scope for indignation that present-day practice affords them, and they will soon turn against the little that you and your friends are prepared to accept. Then, go ahead and say that extremes are dangerous, that too much rigor is really abuse; all the same, the manners in which you build will be judged just as they were or might have been judged when first invented. You call me excessively severe, on the grounds that I am going too far by taking you back to huts in which people have no desire to live; but you would yourselves be condemned for monotonous buildings that people would detest just as much.
Protopiro. Monotonous?
Didascalo. Yes, monotonous, architecturally always exactly the same. As architects, you think yourselves extraordinary, but you would soon become utterly ordinary. When your simple manners of building were first established, why did the successors of those who established them soon begin to find different ways of decorating their buildings? Was it for want of the capacity to equal their predecessors? Surely not, since they had been trained as their pupils; and, all around them, they could see an architecture that was simple enough to be easy to reproduce.
Protopiro. I am not saying that we should do nothing but follow those early manners of building. I don't blame the successors of those first architects for wanting to innovate. But I do blame them for the quality of their innovations, and I blame all those architects who have vied with each other ever since in devising more and more of them.
Didascalo. I suppose you mean architects like [Gian Lorenzo] Bernini and [Francesco] Borromini, and all those others who have failed to bear in mind that ornament must derive from the components of architecture. But, in criticizing them, whom do you think you criticize? You criticize the greatest architectt who ever was or ever will be. You criticize the experience of all those many practitioners who from the moment when this kind of architecture was first invented until it was buried beneath the ruins always worked in this way; and the experience of those many who ever since this kind of architecture was first revived have been and are unable to work in any other way. You criticize the very spirit that invented the architecture that you praise; the spirit that, seeing the world still unsatisfied, has found itself obliged to seek variety by the very same ways and means that you dislike. Now if, over the centuries, among all those countless practitioners, the experience of the totality of architecture to date has failed to produce what you are looking for, then how can we avoid concluding that, if everything you dislike were removed from architecture, we would be left with buildings of unendurable monotony? What word other than foolish can we apply to those who flatter themselves that they are destined to find in this art something that has never been found in all these centuries? All the more foolish, in that they cannot even salve their own self-esteem by finding what they are looking for.
Protopiro. Prove to me that they set out deliberately to look for it.
Didascalo. Look for it yourself; give me an example of it. It is folly to try to teach without knowing what to teach. You say that what you would like to see has never yet been deliberately sought; yet there have been continual experiments and competitions. At one time, royal prizes were offered.6 But what were the achievements of those enticed by such prizes? The undertaking was abandoned and the prize went unclaimed, because the task was impossible. And what was achieved by those who, not believing those pessimists, recently set out to scour Asia, Egypt, and Greece? To call people together to show them-what, exactly? Was it what they had been looking for? They say so, to those who walk in to see it; and when a person has seen it? They add, Please don't let us down by discouraging those who are still waiting outside. Someone goes off to inspect the antiquities and brings back the dimensions of a column, a frieze, or a cornice with the intention of enriching architecture with proportions different from those to which we have become accustomed to seeing, hoping that this will give as much pleasure as a new order or a new architectural manner that he cannot discover. But he has failed to understand, being a novice in this kind of work - or else, being an old hand, he has not yet wanted to understand--not only that no one ancient building has exactly the same proportions as another but also that there is not a single column, intercolumniation, arch, or whatever that has the same dimensions as another arch, intercolumniation, or column in the same structure. He refuses to see that an order, whatever it may be, whether Tuscan or Doric or Ionic or Corinthian or Composite, for all the diversity of dimensions and ornaments, is in appearance no different from another order. He refuses to see that we cultivate only one order or rather only one manner of architecture. Thinking of which, I cannot but laugh at the erroneous way in which the Gazette litteraire of France recently took issue with a design prepared in London by Signor [James] Adam, who as you know is one of the most judicious architects of our time. Wait, I have the Gazette litteraire in my pocket ... Listen to this: Monsieur Adam distinguishes himself as much by the grandeur of his ideas as by the manner in which he renders them. A short while ago, this artist exhibited a design that won the approval of all the connoisseurs. The design was for a magnificent building that would be suitable not only for the meetings of the London Parliament but also for those of the academies of sciences and letters. If executed, this vast undertaking would suit the magnificence of a great nation; it is particularly remarkable for the dignity and sobriety that prevail in all its parts. It is an imitation of the finest manner of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Latins. The intelligence and orderliness with which Monsieur Adam has assigned scenes from the history of England wrought in bas-relief to the various parts of the building is beyond praise.

Protopiro. So, what have you to say to all that?
Didascalo. Nothing. But, after all this well-deserved praise of the architect, listen to the thoughts of the critic and of those whom he admonishes. However, he continues, it should not be imagined that this design presents a new order of architecture, as those who have termed it the "British order" have fancied. One does not create a new order just by putting new ornaments on the capitals and on the other parts of a building. If one were to consider examples of the Corinthian order, one would find so many different manners of ornamental detail that one could define as many orders as there are monuments; but if one examines the main proportions, one will find them to be almost all uniform. Now, what do you make of that? The critic lavishes praise on Signor Adam, but at the same time he wants us to understand that to be truly excellent the design would have had to introduce a new order.
Protopiro. No, forgive me, but you accuse the critic of making the same mistake as those whom he takes to task for wanting to give the name "British order" to the design.
Didascalo. Do I attribute to the critic the faults that he finds in others? I would indeed be maligning him, as you say, except that he subscribes to their crazy belief in the possibility of creating a new Order, and consequently an infinite succession of new Orders. Does he not say that if one examines the main proportions of the so-called British order, one will find them to be almost all uniform? Is this not the same as saying that a new order requires proportions different from all the other orders- the Doric, the Ionic, and the Corinthian? Now, of course it is perfectly possible to devise such proportions; therefore, a new order can be invented. This is the reasoning of the critic. Do you believe it? Just consider the bizarre notions that he puts forward. He says that one does not create a new order just by putting new ornaments on the capitals and on the other parts of the building. And that if one were to consider the orders composed in the Corinthian order, one would find so many different manners of ornamental detail that one could define as many orders as there are monuments. My question to the critic (and this, as I said, is what makes me laugh) is whether he believes the Doric, the Ionic, and the Corinthian are all orders? Does he believe they are three different manners of architecture? He will say, Yes. Now, I am going to imagine that I am living in the times when first the Doric order, then the Ionic, and the Corinthian were invented; and, using the critic's words, I say to the men who invented them: One does not create a new order, gentlemen, just by putting new ornaments on the capitals and on the other parts of the building. My dear sirs, here we still have columns, architraves, friezes, and cornices, just as they are in the Doric: If one were to consider the Doric order in all the temples, one would find so many different manners of ornamental detail that one could define as many orders as there are monuments. What would the inventors of the Ionic and Corinthian orders reply? They, too, would say, borrowing our critic's words, If one examines the main proportions of our orders, one will find them significantly different from those of the Doric, and thus they would believe that they had silenced me. But I would once more borrow the critic's words, and against both them and the critic I would add: If one were to consider the Doric order in all the temples of Greece, Asia, Italy, and so on, one would find so much variety in its main proportions that one could define as many orders as there are temples. Of this the examples furnished by Messieurs [Julien-David] Le Roy and [James] Stuart in their published surveys are proof enough.† And so, to return to what I was saying, my dear Protopiro, we practice only one manner of architecture, though we are loath to admit that a diversity of ornamentation does not in itself constitute a diversity of orders. To be more precise, we cultivate three manners--or, if you prefer, orders--in architecture: one composed of columns, one composed of pilasters, and one composed of a continuous wall. To imagine that different proportions could produce a new species of architecture is, I repeat, sheer madness: the new proportions would be lost in the overall effect, since variations in the dimensions of buildings, whether ancient or modern, are indistinguishable. In any case, why look for different proportions? It is enough that the frieze does not collapse under the weight of the cornice, the architrave under the weight of the cornice and frieze, and the column under the weight of the cornice, frieze, and architrave: those are the proportions of architecture, and they have all been discovered. The variations in these proportions--whether they are slightly greater or slightly smaller, according to what is required for the stability of the building--are generally small or of little importance. They cannot represent visual differences but invariably result from the need to support the building. My dear Protopiro, since there is no possible way of creating new orders, and since altering the proportions makes little or no difference to the look of the building, how are we to reject current practice in architecture without running the risk of monotony? Let us imagine the impossible: let us imagine that the world- sickened though it is by everything that does not change from day to day--were gracefully to accept your monotony; what would architecture then become? A low trade, in which one would do nothing but copy, as a certain gentleman has said.t So that not only would you and your colleagues become extremely ordinary architects, as I said before, but further you would be something less than masons. By constant repetition, they learn to work by rote; and they have the advantage over you, because they have the mechanical skill. You would ultimately cease to be architects at all, because clients would be fools to use an architect to carry out work that could be done far more cheaply by a mason.
Protopiro. Yes, if architecture consisted in nothing but beauty and majesty.
Didascalo. Don't talk to me about the rest. You know as well as I do that masons are quite as good as architects when it comes to foundations, materials, the thickness and diminution of walls, and the springing of arches--in short, anything relating to the stability of a building. We would consider the works to be far more simple, and in keeping with tradition.
Protopiro. Would these master builders have any knowledge of siting and of the proper ways to locate one thing and another? Would they know about the economics of a building or the uses to which it is put? ...
Didascalo. As for that, look at what is now being done, and what always has been done. One normally calls in an architect in order to build something beautiful; this can be said to be the definition of architecture nowadays. But, wherever such considerations do not apply, clients act as their own architects, and all they want is someone to put the walls up for them. Everything else in architecture, ornament aside, is so little regarded and so little likely to bring fame to the architects, that very few of them put much reliance on it.
Protopiro. But do you regard those people as architects? Are you in favor of the clients who build in this way?

Didascalo. As to that, I will tell you only that people have managed very well in countless buildings constructed under the supervision of clients, masons, or architects of this kind, and anyone who sees people living in those buildings, far from pitying them for living in squalor, is likely to reproach them for living in pampered luxury. But to return to our topic: take away every man's freedom to decorate as he sees fit, and you will very soon see the architectural sanctum open to all and sundry. When everyone knows how to practice architecture, everyone will despise it. As time goes by, buildings will grow worse, and the architectural manners that you gentlemen consider so rational will be destroyed by the very means whereby you seek to preserve them. You will lose the will to compete with and to stand out from all the other architects--since there will be no architects. That, for you, will be the greatest misfortune of all. And so, to set matters straight, I ask only this: by all means treasure the rationality that you proclaim, but at the same time respect the freedom of architectural creation that sustains it.
Please do not imagine that in defending this freedom I am suggesting that all buildings, no matter how adorned and no matter how planned, are to be considered beautiful and good. My view on ornament is this. Why does it sometimes happen that something that we have pictured mentally as beautiful fails to please us when it is built? Why has no one ever thought to blame poets for the imaginary buildings that they enrich with ornaments far more irrational and eccentric than those employed by architects? Montesquieu denounces a building laden with ornament; but he does not say that a poem that describes such a building is confused. Let us find out why this is. Is it perhaps because the imagination does not cause us to see as much as the eye reveals to us? This is what I think: the poet leads us from one ornament to another and leaves us there, without proving or making perceptible to us how they fit together. For example, in the poet's work, such and such ornaments please us - just as, in various statues by a good sculptor, we praise the feet of a Cupid, the legs of an Adonis, the face of a Venus, the arms of an Apollo, the chest of a Hercules, the nose of a giant, and so on. But collect the parts in question from all those diverse and differently sized statues, put them together; what is the result? A ridiculous statue, a repellent monstrosity. This is the kind of defect that I deplore in architecture. There are parts that are admirable in themselves but look unbearable when they are jumbled together; the effect of the whole is undermined by the part, of the serious by the trivial, of the majestic by the mean and petty. Now, so that all these parts that seem so admirable to us in isolation may seem equally admirable when put together, and so that incompatibility may not spoil our enjoyment, let us confer gravity and majesty on all that appears petty in them. Take statues, for example, since we have been speaking of them: inside a temple, when made in a variety of poses, they look like individuals who profane the temple's sanctity by unseemly behavior; but when they are beautifully upright and restrained in their gestures, they are among the temple's finest ornaments. That will never do, I hear you say; the niches in the temple looked better without the statues than with them. But how are we to take pleasure in a niche without a statue, when the niche itself was devised not with any idea of its being beautiful in itself but expressly to contain a statue? The eye, I hear you reply, is unable to enjoy more than one thing at a time; it enjoys the niche when there is nothing else to be seen, and the statue when it sees nothing but the statue. Hence Montesquieu's remark that a building laden with ornament is an enigma to the eyes, as a confused poem is to the mind.
The rigorists thus reason as Montesquieu reasons. But why should any reason prevail if, when weighed in the balance, it carries no more weight than another? Here is the other: the niches in the temple, the rigorists maintain, look better without the statues than with them because the eye cannot enjoy more than one thing at a time. But, I would ask, why should the niches not look well if the statues are the very ones for which they were made? The doors or windows of a house designed to a normal human scale would not match the scale of a race of giants. So what clashes with the architecture is not the statue itself but the large size of the statue or the small size of the niche; the temple becomes impossible to praise not because it is encumbered with statues but because of the scale of the statues and their lack of proportion with their niches, bases, and so on. Tell me, which of the two arguments carries more weight? Mine or that of the rigorists? You will say that both are true, and I agree; but might there ever be a way to reconcile them? To train the eye to look at a building laden with ornament and not find it an enigma? In Rome there are two columns with narrative sculptural reliefs on them, both designed in the same way: that of Trajan and that of Marcus Aurelius. If you had seen only that of Marcus Aurelius, I have no doubt that you would have adduced it as evidence of the truth of Montesquieu's axiom, for the column is encumbered from top to bottom with a rash of bas-reliefs. You would have told me such kind of work was calculated to mar the column rather than to adorn it. But I wonder, would you have said the same after seeing Trajan's column, which is also crammed with bas-reliefs from top to bottom and all over the pedestal as well? Did those carvings offend your eyes? Their low relief has reconciled my argument with yours. The architecture of the column is consistent in the definition of its parts and is in no way spoiled by the presence and the protuberance of its ornaments.
What if someone intends to adorn a building with ornaments bearing a high relief? Let him single out the main subject from the accompaniment; spectators should not be faced with a multitude of objects, all or most of them competing to be the main attraction. The decorations should be graded as things are in nature, some being more imposing and dignified than others. In such art, as in nature, the eyes will see not confusion but a beautiful and pleasing arrangement of things. And, in truth, if the ornaments used in architecture are beautiful in themselves, then the architecture will also be beautiful. Why choose to give the eyes a single pleasure, such as that of looking at a piece of architecture, when we can give them the twofold pleasure of seeing it clothed in ornament, since we can see our way to reconciling the two?
So much for some of the ways to secure a reconciliation of the parts with the whole: this, I believe, must be achieved and maintained not only in these attributes of architecture but also in all ornaments that one might someday see fit to combine with it. In the drawings that prompted this discussion of ours, Piranesi has found a way to convey information to us through a work of art, realizing that to do so in words would be difficult. This is because, if architects are to have a free hand in their work, it would take an eternity to discuss the constraints that will nevertheless apply to them, freedom or no freedom. Now, as to whether in his own work Piranesi has conformed to his own and my way of thinking, he himself will judge or the public will judge. Goodbye, my dear Protopiro. Stand by your own opinion--it would be whimsical to concede defeat to a madman like me.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, from Parere su l'Architettura [Opinions on architecture] (1765), trans. Caroline Beamish and David Britt, in Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Observations on the Letter of Monsieur Mariette. Los Angeles: Getty Publications Program, 2002.




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